Trietley: Dissecting the Southeast regional bracket

By Greg Trietley

The Pitt men’s basketball team got what it wanted Sunday evening when the NCAA Tournament… The Pitt men’s basketball team got what it wanted Sunday evening when the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee awarded the Panthers a No. 1 seed. With Duke’s final-day win over North Carolina in the ACC Championship, some feared that the Blue Devils and surging Notre Dame would bounce Pitt to a No. 2 seed.

Those fears were never realized.

“A couple of us talked about [a No. 2 seed] a little bit,” Pitt guard Ashton Gibbs said. “But it really didn’t matter.”

All the speculation over who’s in and who’s out, where teams will play and what seed they will be awarded is over. What now lies ahead for Pitt is a challenging Southeast Region filled with giant-killers, size inside and the best player in the country.

Pitt won’t know its first opponent until UNC-Asheville and Arkansas-Little Rock play Tuesday night in the new First Four round. But assuming the Panthers take care of business against the No. 16 seed — none has ever beaten a No. 1 — they’ll have a tricky trap game Saturday against the winner of Butler and Old Dominion.

“Our reaction was ‘ooh’ when we saw it was Butler and Old Dominion,” Brad Wanamaker said after the bracket was released.

No. 8 seed Butler fell a basket short of the National Championship last year and returns both Matt Howard (16.7 points per game) and Shelvin Mack (15.2 points per game). The Bulldogs have won nine consecutive games and have quietly returned to form after a shaky start to the year. They’re big and they’re experienced.

Old Dominion spent part of this year as the nation’s best team on the boards. The Monarchs are seventh in the country with 40.2 rebounds per game — better than Pitt, who is eighth. Connecticut sent the Panthers packing in the Big East tournament by out-rebounding them. Old Dominion will have the same gameplan.

Worried? Gary McGhee said he looks forward to the challenge.

“I think it’s a very good, tough bracket,” McGhee said Sunday. “There’s a lot of good teams, but it’s what you look for in March — playing against all the best teams.”

If Pitt survives the first weekend, the rest of the bracket spotlights some of the nation’s top backcourts. Michigan State — a bubble team that held its breath for its No. 10 seed — lives and dies with the play of guards Kalin Lucas and Durrell Summers.

The Spartans underachieved this year, but Tom Izzo’s squad always seems to turn it on in March. A No. 5 seed last season, they still advanced to the Final Four.

And the most well-known of all the nation’s guards, Brigham Young’s Jimmer Fredette, lurks in the region as a No. 3 seed. Fredette Mania has been one of college basketball’s top stories — he has 19 straight games with at least 20 points.

The Cougars have played only one ranked team — San Diego State, thrice — but should they and Pitt meet up in the Elite Eight, it could be the biggest test in the history of Jamie Dixon’s much-hyped defense, no hyperbole needed.

The suspension of Cougar forward Brandon Davies — who violated the school’s honor code by having premarital sex —  might tip the scales in the Panthers’ favor. Brigham Young has struggled to rebound without him and has gone just 3-2.

No. 5 seed Kansas State is guard-heavy as well. Although Pitt big man McGhee could present a problem for a high-scoring finesse team like the Wildcats, Kansas State is one of three teams in the region that upset a No. 1-ranked team this year.

In addition to Kansas State’s win over Kansas, No. 4 seed Wisconsin upset Ohio State and No. 6 seed St. John’s throttled Duke at Madison Square Garden.

Wisconsin, like so many teams in this region, has the capacity to make a run. The Badgers showed in their win over the Buckeyes that their versatile big men can out-rebound the best on one end of the court and knock down perimeter shots on the other, inconsistent as they might be.

One thing that Pitt’s region isn’t chock full of, surprisingly, is Big East teams. Only one other conference opponent resides in the Southeast: St. John’s.

Revenge will be on the Panthers’ mind if the two teams meet in the Elite Eight, as the Red Storm upset Pitt 60-59 in February on a controversial last-second lay-up. But both teams have a lot of work to do if they want to get that far.

Another familiar face in the region is Wofford, the No. 14 seed. Pitt opened last season with a 63-60 win over the Terriers. What looked like a shaky start to the year, though, turned out to be a victory over a quality opponent, as Wofford won its conference and held Wisconsin to 53 points in the tournament. The team will look to do similar things this year to Brigham Young.

Even No. 12-seed Utah State has a defense that can keep games close in March. The Aggies held Louisiana Tech to 30 points last week.

The Florida Gators, a bit of a surprise as a No. 2 seed, rest at the bottom of the region. But before Pitt can worry about Florida, Brigham Young, St. John’s, Wofford or anyone not named UNC-Asheville or Arkansas-Little Rock, it has to start its journey to the Final Four with a win Thursday. After that, anything can happen.